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How To Pass The Toughest Serves

Posted by Rapids Volleyball on Monday, January 28, 2008

Bob “Robert” CtvrtlikHow To Pass The Toughest Serves
First Published in 1998 for Volleyball Magazine by Bob Ctvrtlik.
Photos differ to the original publication – Photos help with the illustration of Bob Ctvrtlik’s article.

  • Quick BioBob Ctvrtlik 
  • 3-time Olympian for the U. S, Men’s Indoor National Team.
  • Gold medal at the 1988 Olympic Games
  • Bronze at the 1992 Olympics.
  • Awarded “Best Player in the World” in 1995.

“The sport of volleyball, it has been such a significant part of my life,
I loved it the first day I played and I loved it the last day I retired.”
Bob Ctvrtlik.

Bob Ctvrtlik Platform PassLet’s set the record straight. I’m not the best jumper in the world, and I’m not the quickest guy who ever played in the Olympics. But I pride myself on my consistent passing ability, and that means putting the ball on the setter’s head 95 times out of 100.

Passing is one of the most underrated skills in volleyball. These days, with so much emphasis on power, young players-especially big ones-spend most of their time practicing to become big bombers. There’s nothing wrong with being able to bring the heat, but don’t forget to spend some of that time working on passing reps, too. If you’re not a big bomber, great passing will earn you a spot on the court. If you are and you can also pass, you’ll be an extremely valuable member of your team.

Being a skilled passer may not get you the big headlines, but it will help you contribute to making the offense work efficiently. Every time you send a perfect or near-perfect pass to the setter, the chances of your siding out go up exponentially. You allow the setter to dictate the tempo and style of the offense, rather than limiting his choices with a poor pass.

Good passing makes everyone look good. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but I’ve always become good friends with the setter on every team I’ve ever played on.

Create A Perfect Platform

Here are a few things to keep in mind: There are three basic types of underarm passes: straight away (left) the side (centre) and high and deep (right).

 Straight AwayTo The SideHigh & Deep


Marv DunphyPepperdine Coach Marv Dunphy always told me that to form a good platform, your two arms should work as one. One mental picture that helps me is to think of my arms as a 2×4 piece of wood, straight and working together. The closer together you can place your arms, the easier it will be for you to pass well. In general, women tend to form a more natural platform than men because of their muscle structure. In my case, I had to stretch my shoulders and chest muscles for nearly a year and a half before I could bring my arms completely together. Remember, if your platform is correct, forget all the rest … more often than not, the pass will bounce in a true trajectory. If a ball is to one side or another, you need to get your platform at an angle by dropping your inside shoulder. If the ball is at your right, drop your left shoulder and vice versa. A good way to practice forming a stable platform is the old stand-by pass the ball against a wall. Pick a point on the wall, pass 20 balls to your left side without stopping and then 20 to your right. This makes you more comfortable adjusting your platform and also teaches you focus. Also, hit some balls off the wall and over your shoulder. Work on taking a drop step and passing to the same spot.

Drop A Knee On The Short Serve

Argentina's Bidegain with Platform Pass. Courtesy of the FIVB.The main key here is to judge the flight of the ball, get there early and get your butt down. Unless you absolutely have to sprawl, stay on your feet so you’re available to attack. It’s important to get there as early as possible so you don’t have to curl the ball by scooping it with your arms.


Before almost every serve, I look to see where I am relative to the sideline. One thing that I find very helpful is scouting the server. Not a lot of people do this, but if you watch players for a few minutes, it’s easy to see where they like to hit the ball on the serve. If you feel more comfortable passing balls that are on your right side, position yourself just to the left of the server’s favorite spot.

Next time you’re killing a few minutes between matches at a tournament, take some time to watch one rotation of an opposing team. It’ll pay off when the match starts.

The High Riser

I try to stand in a spot where I know that any ball that’s hit at my neck with any kind of pace is going out of bounds.

Svyatoslav Miklashevich of Kazakstan. Photo courtesy of FIVB.Turn And Extend On The High, Deep Side Serve

If a ball is deep, turn to to the side it’s coming toward and take a drop step. For instance, if it’s coming up high to your right, turn and make a deep plant with your right foot back. Bring your arms up, but be sure to hold your platform, then direct the ball up to the setter.

When you adjust to the high ball, one arm will have to slide ahead of the other. It’s the same concept as when you’re skiing and your uphill ski slides ahead of your inside ski.

Stopping The Jump Serve

Riley Salmon passes for the USA. Photo courtesy of the FIVB.Jump serves aren’t as intimidating as they look. In fact, I think they’re usually a lot easier to pass than float serves. It’s just a matter of getting the right tempo and adjusting your platform so the ball doesn’t go over the net.

If a player is really pounding the ball, don’t try to make a perfect pass. Just make sure it’s set-able. Players often make the mistake of trying to pass a heater perfectly and end up over-passing the ball for an error.

Passing jump serves isn’t much different from making a dig. You should start in a defensive position, though not quite as low. Prepare yourself for the toughest serve, but don’t stand back on your heels. Stay balanced so you can move forward.

Again, pay attention to server tendencies. Teams should position their best passer where the server hits the ball most often. Always be looking for little clues. For example, the server may take a smaller jump or have a more relaxed arm-swing when serving short.

Don’t worry about giving up the perfect jump serve. If they’re going to hit the ball as hard as they can on the line, congratulations. Forget it, and move on to the next play.

Always try to get directly behind the serve. Against jump servers, take a step back so the balls are coming in at abdomen level or lower. It’s much easier to control a jump serve when it’s in front of you. If you have to take it up high, it’s hard to pass because of the velocity.

One thing I used to do before big matches was have a coach stand on a box and pound 20 balls at me, starting slow and working my way toward hard hits. That helps you get your platform ready and your trajectory set before play begins.

Cushion The Tough Jump Serve

Cuba's Yasser Portuondo  Reception. Photo courtesy of the FIVB.If a server is just ripping the ball, there are a couple of ways to take heat off it. I had one coach over in Italy who taught us to start a roll when the ball came in and collapse behind it. That takes a lot of heat off it although I don’t like to do it unless it’s absolutely necessary because it takes you out of the offense. But if you’re in the back row, it’s no problem. Another way to take some steam off a tough serve is to bring your arms back toward your body. With this technique, you can stay on your feet.

On normal passes, your platform should always be moving toward the setter, away from your body.

Collapse On A Short, Fast Jump Serve

Bob Ctvrtlik - Collapse PassOnly use this in emergency situations. But if it’s your last option, remember to curl the ball back after your sprawl. Players often make the mistake of keeping their platform the same as normal, and when they do that, the ball goes right over the net. You have to really exaggerate the curling of your arm. If you think the ball is going to end up on the 10-foot line, it’ll probably be perfect-right on the setter’s head.


11 Responses to “How To Pass The Toughest Serves”

  1. Lexi said

    Thanks for all the volleyball tips!

  2. georgia said

    Thank you very much. i learned a ton. i am a professional volleyball player, and this even helped me. good job and if you ever want an autograph hit me up at georgiavball@yahoo.com
    Thanks for all the support and I will keep doing what i love, and you should too!\
    With love, Georgia

    • Lexi said

      Hey georgia, i am a big fan! i have posters of you on my wall and you are my idol. Can you please send an autograph to lexi234@aol.com
      that would be amazing. i would love that soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much.
      Love, Lexi

  3. MAFRI said


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  4. Matt said

    “In my case, I had to stretch my shoulders and chest muscles for nearly a year and a half before I could bring my arms completely together.”

    what stretches and exercises can you do specifically for this?

  5. mb said

    are you allowed to jump set of a serve from anywhere in the court? or should you have your feet on the groud while receiving a serve?

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  9. Megan said

    This was really great! I’ve played club ball for 4 years, and get better little by little. But after this article, I got better right away, and I’m on the court almost every play. It feels good, because my coach actually started complimenting me, rather than yell. I have a year till highschool, and I’m already playing at their level (and sometimes above). Thanks so much!

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